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19th Century Sign Language in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice

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Today, many people don’t see the point, or they are not motivated, in learning a new language. However, In the 19th century, people used different types of sign language as a form of communication. Jane Austin’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, portrays this as an importance of educating young women. By learning fan, glove, and, or flower language, women had a way to express themselves secretly. The sign languages consisted of simple motions that would mean a certain word or phrase. Also, these languages allowed a woman to flirt with a guy without it being extremely rude. During the time of Pride and Prejudice, people used hand fans, gloves, and flowers as a form of communication.

The 19th century started off with fans being in a period of decline. Hand fans weren’t being produced as large as they used to be. Now, the fans for being made to fit the size of a woman’s palm. Fans were being made this small in order to fit in the pockets of smaller dresses that were in style. Starting around 1825, fans were being produced at a larger scale. The hand fans were changing to be more complex to go with the changing fashion. Even the leaves on the fan were being made to “represent the romantic revival that was taking place”. Hand fans were being used in a variety of ways. “One purpose was they functioned as an indispensable and ornate fashion item, but beyond that fans also regulated air temperature, concealed flirtatious blushes, and protected a woman from insects and nature’s harsh elements”.

Along with those other purposes, fans were being used as a language. The different signs made with the fans usually expressed a woman’s love or emotion. People started publishing these signs “in contemporary etiquette books and magazines”. Fan language was being published in “The Original Fanology or Ladies’ Conversation which had been created by Charles Francis Badini, and was officially published by William Cock in London in 1797”. The book gave women “details on how to hold complete conversations through simple movements of a fan”.

Using a hand fan allowed “a woman to properly communicate her feelings in a restrictive society in socially acceptable and polite ways”. Along with them being used as a language, fans “served many other purposes”. A woman could use her fan to disguise her identity while at a masquerade ball. However, in order to understand what the women were saying, men “also had to learn the language of the fans”. During this time, “both men and women carried fans” to communicate with each other, “and understood the different messages”. In the 1800s, “fanology explained how to hold polite conversations using simple fan movements”.

Etiquette books were very popular during the 19th century. People who read etiquette books were “‘seeking the manners, dress, and external polish suitable for mixing in fashionable ‘society’’” (Mackie). Specifically, an etiquette book on gloves advised women to “‘never go out without gloves, and put them on before you leave the house’”. Gloves were a popular thing to wear, and a lot of rules came along with them. Beyond that, “people sometimes wore gloves outdoors for comfort,” and “other times they provided protection against cold or inclement weather”. “Glove etiquette rules even resulted in people wearing them in warm weather”.

Glove etiquette consisted of rules for “indoors and out, in warm or cold weather, and at funerals, balls, or dinner parties”. Gloves “were worn by both men and women, including the Prince of Wales, Jane Austen, her cousin, and Napoleon Bonaparte”. There were many etiquette rules that people had to follow while wearing gloves. Also, during the 1800s “‘a woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages…’” (Austen 39). However, in the 19th century, a woman was “able to signal her feelings by using her gloves”.

A woman couldn’t flirt in the 1800s. Some people claimed, “‘few things were more vulgar than the readiness to flirt from every case or marked mutual interest between a man and a woman’”. A woman expressing her feelings to a man would be considered very rude and improper. Therefore, signals were developed to maintain a woman’s dignity. The simple gesture of a woman tapping the gloves on her chin, and biting the tips really says a lot. These gestures would tell a man that “she loves another and wishes to be rid of him very soon”. By using their gloves, a woman “could subtly show her true feelings and save a man from guessing how she felt”. However, people usually weren’t allowed to take off their gloves, so it is interesting that a glove language exists.

During the Victorian Era “flowers quickly increased in popularity”. At this time, “a large list of meanings were assigned to flowers and the Language of Flowers came into being”. “The language of flowers involved more than the simple meaning given to a flower”. It “referred to the combining, presenting, and even the receiving or flowers”. Flowers could be used to send messages portraying love or affection. Sometimes, flowers could have been used to send negative messages too. Additionally, “certain flowers could provide insight into a man’s intentions”.

“The earliest flowers dictionary was written in 1819”. The book was “written in Paris, it was titled, Le Langage de Fleurs”. The Le Langage de Fleurs was written by “‘Charlotte de Latour’”. Then, “within a year there was a German translation, and England and America had their versions”. “In 1879, an entire book was written about flower language by Miss Corruthers of Inverness… quickly became the guide to the meanings behind flowers throughout England and the United States.

Flowers were “given as a symbol of a person’s feelings and intentions”. In flower language “a gift of white roses symbolizes ‘a heart of ignorant of love,’ coreopsis meant ‘love at first sight,’ and forget-me-nots indicated ‘true love’”. Also, a loving message could be sent by arranging white clovers, heartsease, pinks, an orange tree branch, and single pinks. Together, they give the message “Think of me” while “you occupy my thoughts” of your “boldness”, “generosity”, and “pure love”. “Colors also expressed variations in intent or emotions. “Even today, a red rose expresses true love, a pink rose is a sign of warm affection, white roses are associated with purity, and yellow roses with friendship”. Flower language allowed people to be able to communicate with each other without being face to face. All they had to do was send each other a bouquet containing the correct flowers.

Works Cited

  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Penguin Books, 2014.
  • “Fans in 19th Century Europe.” The Fan Circle International, 2019, https://www.fancircle Accessed Nov 2, 2019.
  • “Floriography: The Language of Flowers in the Victorian Era.” ProFlowers Blog, 16 Nov. 2016, era. Accessed Nov. 2, 2019.
  • “Ladies and Their Fans.”, html. Accessed Nov. 7, 2019.
  • The Language of Flowers. The Penguin Group, 1968.
  • Mackie, Gregory. “The Function of Decorum at the Present Time: Manners, Moral Language, and Modernity in ‘An Oscar Wilde Play.’” Modern Drama, vol. 52, no. 2, Summer 2009, pp. 145–167. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3138/md.52.2.145. Accessed Nov. 4, 2019.
  • Seaton, Beverly. “Considering the Lilies: Ruskin’s ‘Prosperpina’ and Other Victorian Flower Books.” Victorian Studies, vol. 28, no. 2, Winter 1985, p. 255. EBSCO host, Accessed Nov. 4, 2019.
  • Walton, Geri. “Glove Etiquette and Rules in the 1800s.” Geri Walton, 19 May 2019, Accessed Nov. 11, 2019.
  • Walton, Geri. “Gloves and Flirting Language.” Geri Walton, 8 Nov. 2018, Accessed Nov. 2, 2019.
  • Walton, Geri. “The Importance of Fans and Fan Language.” Geri Walton, 28 Dec. 2018, Accessed Nov. 10, 2019.  

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